INTRODUCTION TO JANUARY LESSONS
The calendar frustrates us but also guides us. God carved time from out of eternity; he made days, weeks, months, seasons, and years. Surely one reason for such creativity was to give us fresh starts and new beginnings. When Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah helped bring back the exiles from Babylon, they also helped provide to them a fresh start with God. Ezra the Bible teacher led the way in reconstituting the nation of exiles. During January, students will learn of God’s exciting plans for fresh starts, that fresh starts require prayer and fasting, and that they are not always easy. Students also will learn more about the distinctive lives God calls his people to live while in this world.
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Theme: It’s a New Start
Lesson text: Ezra 1:1-11
Supplemental texts: Ezra 5:11-17; Ephesians 1:8-12; Matthew 17:5; John 6:28-29; 14:1
Aim: Respond to the Lord’s direction as Cyrus did.
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Download a PDF of this week’s lesson material (the Study by Mark Scott, Application by David Faust, and Discovery Questions by Michael C. Mack): LOOKOUT_January1_2023.
Send an email to [email protected] to receive PDFs of the lesson material each month.
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By Mark Scott
God had planned from eternity past to get his people back home and give them a fresh start. After all, the Messiah and the good news of the gospel would come out of Zion. The people had been exiled in Babylon due to their idolatry (2 Chronicles 36:17-21). While in Babylon, they had lost all of their song (Psalm 137). But the time had come for them to go home and dream again of being God’s special possession (Psalm 126).
Ezra and Nehemiah tell of this new start (these books were once combined as one). The minor prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi assisted this great Bible teacher (Ezra) and the former cupbearer turned governor (Nehemiah). God’s people would come home in three waves. The first and largest wave would come with Zerubbabel, followed by a much smaller wave with Ezra (he does not even arrive in Jerusalem until chapter 7 of his book), and finally a medium-size wave under Nehemiah.
God Moved Cyrus
The sovereign God was not against moving people’s hearts to accomplish what he wanted done. So, after the Babylonians fell to the Persians, God moved Cyrus, who was the king of Persia, to allow his people to go home. This happened during the first year of his reign.
Cyrus was a nontypical potentate. He was not your average slash-and-burn leader in the ancient Near East. Instead, he was rather open to allowing conquered peoples to go back to their homelands. A great artifact is the Cyrus Cylinder. While Israel was unnamed on the cylinder, the artifact gave evidence that Cyrus was in the habit of releasing captured people groups, allowing them to return to their homelands, and sometimes even paying to rebuild their cities and temples. God was behind the scenes working in Cyrus’s heart. This also fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:12; Daniel 9:2). Cyrus was even referred to as the Lord’s anointed to bring this new start to God’s people (Isaiah 45:1).
Cyrus’s proclamation for the Jews indicated he was under orders from God to release the Jews. He acknowledged that God had exalted him (given him all the kingdoms of the earth) for the purpose of building the Jewish temple back to its former glory. This proclamation included releasing the Jews from any locality to go home and take part in this grand project. In addition, funds were provided, such as silver and gold as well as goods and livestock along with a freewill offering. Cyrus even gave them a blessing; May their God be with them. Amazing!
God Moved His People
Potentates can make all the decrees they want. But nothing will happen unless the people follow up in like-mindedness. God’s people got on board when God moved their hearts. This involved several groups of people. Ezra mentioned the family heads of Judah and Benjamin. Why were they singled out? Very simply, they represented the Messianic line. God must get the proper remnant back into the land of Israel for the prophecies to be fulfilled. The priests and Levites also were singled out. These two groups would play a crucial role in teaching the people (Nehemiah 8:1-10) and getting everything in place for the sacrificial system to be restored (Nehemiah 10:28-39; 12:1-26).
These groups would also be instrumental in rebuilding the walls of the city (Nehemiah 3:1-32) and reconstructing the altar and the house of the Lord proper (Ezra 3:1-13). This project was not funded entirely by the government. God moved the peoples’ hearts toward generosity. Like Cyrus, they gave articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, valuable gifts, and freewill offerings. They were all in.
God Moved the Treasurer
Once in a great while, church treasurers come to believe the church’s money belongs to them, so a generous church treasurer is a treasure. This treasurer, named Mithredath, worked for Cyrus. To fund this great project, Cyrus brought out the articles that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the temple in 586 BC. Nebuchadnezzar mocked the God of Israel by stashing them in the temple of his god.
Mithredath counted out the valuables to Sheshbazzar, which was another name for Zerubbabel (2 Chronicles 36:7; Daniel 1:2), who functions almost as a Christ-figure in the book. The gold and silver dishes, pans, and bowls were counted and totaled 5,400 articles. These would not only finance the trip back home but also make a start on the rebuilding efforts. God’s plan would not be thwarted.